COLUMBIA, SC (AP) – A federal appeals court has ordered a new sentencing hearing for a South Carolina inmate who spent two decades on death row.
Sammie Louis Stokes was sentenced to death in 1999 for the rape and murder of 21-year-old Connie Snipes in Orangeburg County, The State reported. Evidence at trial showed he was paid $ 2,000 by the victim’s mother-in-law, who planned to take custody of her grandchildren after Snipes died.
U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled on Thursday that Stokes must have a new sentencing hearing because two of his previous defense attorneys failed to present evidence of his past traumatic. Stokes’ trial attorney had the evidence but chose to withhold it from the jury, Gregory wrote.
“The jury handed down a death sentence without hearing a word from the defense on Stokes as an individual,” Gregory wrote.
In his opinion, a second lawyer assigned to Stokes for post-conviction hearings found more information about his troubled past, but failed to use it to seek a lighter sentence.
The judge’s opinion described the physical and sexual abuse Stokes suffered at a young age. Both of her parents were “serious alcoholics,” Gregory wrote, and Stokes and her sister were skipping school to steal food from neighbors to eat. Stokes saw both of his parents die in front of him before he was 14, and he began to abuse alcohol and drugs and dropped out of school.
“According to the child development expert retained by Stokes ‘federal attorney, these facts constitute an extraordinarily traumatic childhood that interfered with Stokes’ future emotional regulation and social adjustment,” Gregory wrote.
Appeals judges did not set any deadline for Stokes’ new sentencing hearing, but said it had to take place “within a reasonable time.”
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Marvin Quattlebaum said he did not believe lawyers provided Stokes with ineffective advice during the sentencing phase of his trial.
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